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Fighting Global Warming Will Improve Health of People Everywhere

Climate

What if we could reduce worldwide deaths from disease, starvation and disaster while improving the health of people everywhere? According to the World Health Organization, we can.

“Previously unrecognized health benefits could be realized from fast action to reduce climate change and its consequences,” says a news release about WHO’s first global conference on health and climate in Geneva Aug. 27 to 29, adding, “changes in energy and transport policies could save millions of lives annually from diseases caused by high levels of air pollution.” Encouraging people to use public transit, cycling and walking instead of driving would cut traffic injuries and vehicle emissions and promote better health through increased physical activity.

Beyond forestalling the almost-certain catastrophic consequences of unchecked global warming, changing our habits, conserving energy and shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy will have many benefits for human health—and for the economy.
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Reducing the threat of global warming and finding ways to adapt to unavoidable change will also help people around the world “deal with the impact of heat, extreme weather, infectious disease and food insecurity.”

Climate change affects human health in multiple ways. Increased extreme weather causes flooding and droughts, which influences food production, water and sanitation. Pathogens that plague humans, livestock and crops spread more widely. WHO notes that diseases such as cholera, malaria and dengue are especially sensitive to weather and climate changes.

According to WHO, “Climate change is already causing tens of thousands of deaths every year from shifting patterns of disease, from extreme weather events, such as heat-waves and floods, and from the degradation of water supplies, sanitation, and impacts on agriculture” — and it will get worse if we fail to address the problem. The poor, elderly and children are most vulnerable.

WHO’s conference was held in advance of UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon’s Climate Summit 2014 for world leaders, taking place in New York Sept. 23, and geared partly toward ensuring world leaders come up with an agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol at the Paris UN climate change conference next year.

Two days before the Climate Summit, on Sept. 21, more than half a million people are expected to gather in New York for the People’s Climate March, with simultaneous events around the world, co-ordinated by a coalition of more than 1,000 organizations, including environmental, social justice, religious, health and labour groups.

WHO’s conference and findings show the importance of getting health-care professionals on board with climate action, as they are with the People’s Climate March. “The evidence is overwhelming: climate change endangers human health,” says WHO director-general Margaret Chan. “Solutions exist and we need to act decisively to change this trajectory.”

In a Huffington Post article, Ban Ki-moon stresses that global warming is an immediate and urgent issue. “Instead of asking if we can afford to act, we should be asking what is stopping us, who is stopping us, and why?” he writes. “Let us join forces to push back against skeptics and entrenched interests. Let us support the scientists, economists, entrepreneurs and investors who can persuade government leaders and policy-makers that now is the time for action.”

Beyond forestalling the almost-certain catastrophic consequences of unchecked global warming, changing our habits, conserving energy and shifting from fossil fuels to clean energy will have many benefits for human health—and for the economy. Reducing the burden of pollution- and global warming–related health care costs is a big factor, but opportunities also exist in the clean technology sector. Climate Summit organizers point to the “growing recognition that affordable, scalable solutions are available now that will enable us all to leapfrog to cleaner, more resilient economies.

A leaked draft of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment’s final synthesis report concludes that global warming is already having major impacts worldwide and that, unless we do something about it, we can expect “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” Our news media should be focusing on these issues rather than chasing an endless line of celebrity antics, corporate priorities and political posturing.

Scientists have warned about global warming consequences for decades, but efforts by fossil fuel interests to sow doubt and confusion, combined with intransigent governments and public apathy, have brought us to a tipping point.

The choice is clear: If we want to protect our health, our children’s and grandchildren’s health, and the natural systems that keep us alive and healthy, we must act now.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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